Are brands shouting loud enough to cut through the alarming sugar headlines?
Are brands shouting loud enough to cut through the alarming sugar headlines?
A view from Sara Spary

Corporate jargon has no cut-through, it's time for a proper debate about sugar

Many ingredients in our food chain have been demonised but today Public Enemy Number One is sugar. Are brands and agencies doing enough to combat the cacophony of criticism? asks Sara Spary.

Over recent years studies decrying the evils of sugar have been mounting, reaching near fever pitch.

Simultaneously, there has been a steady decade-long decline in the volume of carbonated soft drinks being consumed. Concerns over sugar and artificial sweeteners mean that consumers are increasingly discerning about what they drink. They are turning away from fizzy drinks, smoothies and even fruit juices and are on the hunt for new products with perceived health benefits, such as bottled waters with electrolytes or drinks made out of tree sap and coconut water.

This is no doubt alarming for some brands and an opportunity for others.

But the headlines about sugar are not going away any time soon and it would seem they are impacting the bottom line.

In the past week alone the British Medical Journal published a study claiming sugary drinks have contributed to 2.8m cases of diabetes over the last decade; GPs called for a sugary drinks tax; the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition recommended people slash the calories they consume from soft drinks by half and Public Health England said soft drinks should be cut entirely from children's diets.

The public tit-for-tat between the industry and pressure groups is repetitive and of limited value to consumers who want facts

Many groups like Sustain and Action on Sugar want tougher government action to force businesses to reformulate and cap sugar in their products and stop marketing high sugar foods altogether. They cast aside voluntary action by the likes of the Food and Drink Federation and Advertising Association as lip service.

Vitriolic attacks have fuelled the frenzy

Vitriolic attacks drawing parallels between tobacco and sugar may have done little to eke out a sensible debate about sugar, encouraging hyperbole and hysteria. But brands have – no doubt for fear of sticking heads above the parapet – hesitated to have an open debate, preferring instead to let industry bodies do the talking via arcane position statements about how sugar can be enjoyed as part of a balanced diet.

This has created a public tit-for-tat between the industry and pressure groups that is repetitive and of limited value to consumers who want facts. This kind of corporate jargon has limited cut through with real human beings who want reassurance. If it is safe to consume sugar at the rate we currently do, brands might benefit from doing more to convince that is the case. 

Brands are expertly positioned to engage with consumers on concerns over sugar and perhaps it is time they speak out with a more human tone

Brands are taking strides towards offering consumers more choice and perhaps it is time to shout louder about it. Coca-Cola, for example the largest soft drinks brand in the world, wants half of sales to come from no and low sugar products by 2020 and the British Soft Drinks Association says its members have increased spend on no and low sugar products by 70% since 2012.

Many brands invest a lot in communicating about health, wellbeing and the importance of exercise and a balanced diet. But it is no secret that sometimes this dialogue can feel one sided, forced and patronising. And as research for Marketing by NewsCred indicated this week, 41% of consumers want more transparent information about the nutritional profile of the products they eat.

Brands are expertly positioned to engage with consumers on concerns over sugar and perhaps it is time they speak out with a more human tone, rather than letting the sugar lobby do the talking. 

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